Sugar – The Evil Empire?

In 1974 William Dufty wrote a bestseller called Sugar Blues espousing the evils of sugar and proclaiming that sugar is a highly addictive pervasive ingredient causing a host of medical problems from depression to coronary thrombosis.  Nearly 2 million copies of his book have been sold.   Is Dufty right?  Is sugar the source of all our health ailments?  Should we boycott this ingredient completely?

Just the Facts:

Sugar is a carbohydrate that primarily comes from sugar cane and sugar beets.   The sugar is separated from the beet or cane and the result is 99.95% pure sucrose.  This sucrose is the same as what is found in fruits and vegetables.

In the last 30 years due to a new process called starch hydrolysis many commercial products are sweetened with products that start as a corn starch.

1.     Dextrose – the commercial name for the crystalline glucose produced from starch.  Dextrose is 60-70% as sweet as sugar.

2.     Corn syrup/glucose syrup – a commercial product that may contain between 20 – 98% dextrose.  Corn syrups are a little less sweet than dextrose.

3.     High fructose corn syrup – This is a corn starch that is processed to create a fructose and then is blended with dextrose syrup to create a sweetener that is 130-180% sweeter than sugar.

Is Sugar Addictive?

William Dufty was on to something, but he might have overstated his case.  Sugar itself is not medically speaking “addictive”.  Sugary foods do not generate symptoms of withdrawal and other medically distinct symptoms characterized by authentic addiction.  However people can develop a psychological dependency to food, which is a by-product or symptom of a larger psychological condition.

Does Sugar Make Me Fat?

Being overweight or obese is not just the result of over indulging in sugar, but rather not maintaining the balance between overall calorie intake and exercise.   If you consume more calories than you need, from any source weight gain is inevitable.  It is important to remember that high-sugar foods tend to have fewer vitamins and minerals and may replace more nutritious foods.  High sugar foods also have many unnecessary calories that can add weight.

Sugar and Diabetes

Diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors.  Eating too much sugar is not one of them.  However, being overweight does increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Your body converts starches and sugars into blood glucose to meet your bodies basic energy needs.  The glycemic index describes how fast the body breaks down these starches and sugars after they have been consumed.  Wheat bread and brown rice have a similar glycemic index as to table sugar.   Additionally it is important to balance what carbohydrates (including sugars) are eaten and how much fat or protein is eaten with the carbohydrates.  Adding protein will slow down the absorption of carbohydrates.  Well-informed diabetics understand the need to balance what and when they eat carbohydrates.  The American Diabetes Association advises diabetics that sugar may be included in their diets provided it’s counted as part of their daily carbohydrate allowance.

Hyperactivity and Sugar

Sugars, like carbohydrates enter the bloodstream quickly.  They can produce rapid fluctuations in blood glucose levels that might trigger adrenaline and make a person more active or “hyperactive”.  Similarly, falling adrenaline levels bring on a period of decreased activity, also known as a “sugar crash”.    Adequate amounts of fiber in your diet can help moderate these highs and lows.  Oatmeal, whole-grain breads, and certain fruits such as bananas and grapes are good natural sources of fiber.

Sugar in our Food Supply

Consumers today rely more on the food industry and less on the home kitchen for meals and snacks.    This is reflected in the marketing and distribution of sugar.  According to the sugar industry in 1925 the consumer use of sugar accounted for two-thirds of total sugar consumption.  Today the food industry uses about 66% of sugar and household use of sugar has declined to about 34%.

Obviously sugar is used in commercially prepared foods to sweeten products.  Sugar is also used in baked goods to help maintain the proper texture by inhibiting flour gluten development. Sugar helps bread rise by providing nourishment to yeast and helps the crust brown.   Sugar helps prevent spoilage by stealing the water from bacterial cells in jellies and preserves.

Most home cooks use less sugar in home-prepared meals.  If you are concerned about your sugar intake not using prepared food items and making meals from scratch will drastically cut your sugar consumption.

So did William Dufty overstate his case?  Is our sugar intake at the root of our medical ailments?  Most nutritionists agree sweet foods and beverages that do not contribute nutrients should be thought of as treats, consumed in moderation.  In this manner sugar can be part of an overall well balanced diet.